Canada’s Sluggish Response to Chinese Political Influence

Canada’s Sluggish Response to Chinese Political Influence

Liberal democracies must develop safety valves allowing for swift and dispassionate reviews of election interference claims.

Another day, another revelation that the People’s Republic of China is engaged in political warfare against the West.

Last week, Canada arrested and charged a former officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, William Majcher, for aiding “the Chinese government’s efforts to identify and intimidate an individual outside the scope of Canadian law.” Worse, it appears that Mr. Majcher did not act alone, as he was granted bail “on conditions that include not communicating with another former Mountie with whom he is alleged to have conspired.”

Mr. Majcher’s arrest is just another data point of mounting evidence that China’s global ambitions include undermining the political system of the United States’ northern neighbor and NATO ally. For the past five months, Canada has been grappling with the revelations that the 2019 and 2021 federal elections may have been subject to Chinese interference. The New York Times reported that “Canada’s intelligence agency has warned at least a half-dozen current and former elected officials that they have been targeted by Beijing.” Beijing’s meddling “disproportionately focused on Chinese-Canadian elected officials representing districts in and around Vancouver and Toronto.” Other unnerving allegations, now public thanks to leaks from an anonymous source in the Canadian security services, suggest an alarming possibility: that the PRC may have recruited candidates with an eye to build a pliable cadre of politicians in the 2022 local Vancouver elections. In the last federal election, China may have worked to secure a weak, minority Liberal government contingent on a confidence and supply agreement with minor parties (which is, of course, precisely what happened).

Worse yet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal minority government has not credibly responded to these revelations. The non-Liberal parties in Parliament uniformly demanded the resignation of the prime minister’s hand-picked special rapporteur after he downplayed the allegations and denied the need for a 9/11 Commission-style independent investigation known as a “public inquiry.” The special rapporteur, former Governor-General David Johnston, a Trudeau family friend, finally resigned in June as popular demand for a public inquiry reached a fever pitch.

Since then, negotiations have been ongoing between the government and the opposition parties on what form, if any, a public inquiry might take. But even if Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc were to announce a deal tomorrow, the many months of foot-dragging have already cost valuable time. It is now possible that Canadians will vote in the next election without an official, public understanding of the extent of Chinese influence in Canadian political life.

Like other Westminster systems, Canada has no fixed parliamentary terms of office. The prime minister could call a new election tomorrow. While he has not indicated any intention to do so, Trudeau’s political calculations could change for various reasons. Nor is the decision his alone. If his confidence-and-supply agreement with the New Democracy Party (NDP) crumbled, there would be no choice. And even if Trudeau or the NDP decide against a snap election—their agreement stipulates that the next federal election must be held by October 2025. Blink twice, and we’ll be there, even if the full results of any public inquiry are not.

The mere question of Chinese intrusion must compel Canada to ensure the integrity and security of the ballot. The longer Ottawa takes to determine whether and how China meddled in the Canadian political system, the more likely partisan incentives take hold. Even assuming some of the allegations of foreign influence are false or misleading, without an authoritative public answer, they will nonetheless fester and corrode public trust in Canadian institutions. The interests of partisanship can impose friction that prevents an attacked country from absorbing what truly happened. Half the country will believe that foreign interference was a hoax and the other half that the current government is in thrall to General Secretary Xi Jinping.

No doubt, China takes these second-order outcomes into account before it approves active measures. The people themselves are the target. Part of waging our unfriendly competition with China means that Western publics, including our own, must face this vulnerability.

Liberal democracies must develop safety valves for swift and dispassionate reviews of election interference claims. Such reviews must be acceptable to both Left and Right. This means that electorates and opposition parties should not immediately punish whistleblowers and political actors making accusations of foreign interference. Encouraging the establishment and acceptance of the relevant facts also means that replicable and scalable public-facing mechanisms must thoroughly and speedily vet all interference claims and identify wrongdoers—ideally before an impending election.

If Canada conducts a fair-minded public inquiry, it may become a model for one part of such a system. If so, it could not happen soon enough. After all, even if Canada does not vote until 2025, our friends in the United States will be caucusing in Iowa and voting in South Carolina sooner than you think.

Zac Morgan is an attorney specializing in First Amendment and campaign finance law. He previously worked for the Institute for Free Speech and now serves as counsel to Commissioner Allen Dickerson of the Federal Election Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not express the official opinion of the U.S. government.

Image: Shutterstock.